Is spontaneous combustion covered under warranty?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Aug 01, 1999

Dear Tom and Ray:

My beautiful 1993 Caprice Classic four-door sedan with only 28,000 miles on it --
and no dents or scratches -- is now a pile of junk. While parked in front of my
home, the engine began to smolder, then it burst into flames. Within 10 minutes,
the firefighters arrived. They could not open the hood but, boy, did they wield
their axes! They had almost-fiendish looks in their eyes as they swung their axes
and demolished the entire front half of my car before they finally pried open the
hood and reached the fire. They said it must have been an electrical short. My
tears didn't help put out the fire. Although I paid $18,000 for the car, my
insurance company paid me just more than $9,000. They said something about "Blue
Book value." The Chevy garage blamed the fire on a short circuit, but had no
other comment. Is there any warranty covering such an event, and do I have any
recourse? -- Harold

RAY: Your warranty, in this case, is called "fire insurance," Harold. And
unfortunately, that's probably all the recourse you have. If you recently had
some electrical work done to the car, you might be able to make a strong
circumstantial case that those mechanics were responsible. But short of that (no
pun intended), you're out of luck.

TOM: Once a car burns up to the extent that yours did, unless you can get
Lieutenant Columbo in there with the forensics squad, there's usually no easy and
inexpensive way to tell what started burning first. It could have been a fraying
wire that was damaged during an unrelated repair. It could have been a wire
pinched during a minor fender bender.

RAY: It could have been your Exergizer gone haywire!

TOM: Whatever the cause, there was a large, unintended discharge of electricity
from the battery, and that produced the heat that started the fire.

RAY: In terms of your settlement, you can look up the used-car value yourself. Go
to our Web site, the Car Talk section of Then click on "Model
Reports" and fill in your year, make and model. And if you think the insurance
company is trying to low-ball you, you have the right to refuse their offer and
bargain for more.

TOM: You may be able to argue that the car had extremely low miles or was in
superb condition. They may tell you to flake off, but it's worth doing some
research and making your case before agreeing on a settlement.

RAY: And, to confirm your observation, the firefighters probably did have a
fiendish look in their eyes. After all, it's not that often that they get to chop
the heck out of a car with axes. I've been dying to try that on my brother's car
for years.

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